by Sean McTiernan
Frank Henenlotter is a cult figure within a cult genre and it’s about time he be celebrated. While other 80s horror luminaries like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson went on to devastate the box office and make a huge amount of money, Frank Henenlotter stayed with weird cinema. He dedicated his life to it, spending 16 years working with Something Weird Video, releasing the weirdest movies possible. Hennenlotter then returned to directing. And like fellow god-tier goresmith Stuart Gordon, Henenlotter stuck to the fake-blood and rubber monsters for all six of his films to date.
Too rare to live, too weird to ever attain mainstream success. Because although there’s a lot to love about Henenlotter’s movies, their weirdness trumps anything else going on.
So I’ve decided to dedicate the next five days of our 31-day tour through horror movies to examining each of Henenlotter’s movies and why there’s a great case for watching each one. We’ll see the common threads that run though each of his movies and how his approach makes him unique among schlock jocks. Well, I’m hoping we see that stuff anyway, I just think the man who made both “Brain Damage” and “Frankenhooker” needs to be honoured. Handily his movies get progressively more bizarre and his career continues-crowned by his latest and weirdest movie: “Bad Biology.” Nothing else on this list comes close to “Bad Biology” in terms of bizarre tone, back story, visuals and outrageous premise so it’s good we get to follow the journey to what lead one man to make such a commitedly gonzo movie.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. We begin at the beginning: “Basket Case,” Henenlotter’s debut and still his most famous movie. In “Basket Case” two conjoined twins, Duane and Belial, are separated in their early teens because Belial is an over-sized fist with arms and teeth hanging off the side of Duane and most people think that’s inappropriate. Their father has resented Belial ever since the twins’ birth caused the death of their mother and he is seen screaming insults into the baby carriage. This kind of subtlety is one of Basketcase’s trademarks, evidenced by Belial’s discovery he can get back at this father by murdering him with an elaborately rigged electric saw-blade. Yes, this is the smoldering, unspoken intensity of a Jane Austin novel.
The movie follows Duane and Belail, now grown-ass men, as they travel to New York to murder the doctors their father hired to cut them apart. And because Belail is not really that great at the whole “conventional society” thing, Duane keeps him in a locked wicker basket.
“Basket Case” was made for very little and also with the express intention of being seedy. It shows. The movie takes place in a hotel that drips real grime. The special effects are, to be charitable, enthusiastic at best. And the acting. My God, the acting is amazingly bad. Sometimes people deliver lines as if they’re in the middle of passing out. But because it’s not on purpose and all of the characters seem like they’d be odd people in real life anyway, it’s actually damn charming. This is what Henenlotter’s movies all share: a love of freaks and a uniformly charming and earnest presentation. There is none of the mean-spirited snark that crawls from every Troma movie, aggressively acknowledging how bad the film is so you can’t criticize it first. Hennenlotter’s movies are gross and weird, but they’re also love letters to exploitation cinema, knowingly wonky and adorably gonzo.
For instance Duane’s relationship with receptionist Sharon. There’s no reason to fall for the creepy Duane but she totally does. And even when he covers her with a sheet and hops her off a wall, she still comes back to him (to “hop someone off something” is Irish slang for throwing them bodily at something-you’ve learned something today). This is a totally odd and unrealistic relationship of course, but most relationships are just that in my experience.
Sharon and Duane’s time together is just one of the brief personal interactions in “Basket Case” that almost amount to Hughesian vignettes: just a minute or two where the movie takes a bit of a break from all the murder (or bunking school with your imaginary friend if you’re talking John Hughes) to show that people are people. This off-kilter charm is of particular use when it comes to Kevin Van Hentenryck, who plays Duane. Van Hentenryck is another example of one of my favourite schlock horror tropes: the leading man who can’t lead, follow or get out of the way.
Watching Van Hentenryck gurn and squeak his way though “Basket Case” is genuinely hilarious. The man’s emotions catapult from weird simpering to flighty mania, all in the space of a sentence. His hair, which looks like a someone combined every haircut to grace to the front row of a Whitesnake concert into some sort of super white rock fro, does most of his acting for him. And yet still the movie is carried by Belial: the man in the basket.
By the end of the movie, Belial is as despicable as those who separated him from his brother. One assumes a big part in his descent into evil is the shame he felt, being regarded as a animal responsible for his mother’s death, a canker on the side of his brother. The other large part probably being the fact that he looks like a feral testicle. Personally, I’d be raging if I was a poorly animated feral testicle, and who among us can say any different?
Belial’s journey over the course of the movie from avenging assassin to physically improbable rapist (he has no lower half, what exactly was going on there?) is a tragic one. Although he looks like steroid-pumped dumpling and moves around using some of the worst stop-motion animation I’ve ever encountered, you still can’t help but fear for the guy. Sure he attacks people. (These people incidentally always seem to be holding him in place and they only develop cuts and bruises after the attack, not during… that’s weird right?) But until the end of the movie, these are evil scummy people who have attacked his family in some way. Belail is a family man to the core. And corny as the effect is, the anguished human scream they give him and the occasional good camera angle do help to make him a genuinely tragic (and not just molded plastic) figure.
Even his eventual descent into a rapey murder fugue comes in tandem with his brother’s late sexual awakening. From the second his brother goes on a date with the hapless Sharon, Belail is insane with rage. The poor man (blob?) only had his brother for companionship and although the doctors could only medically separate them, Belail is conscious of the fact it will take sexual desire to sever the emotional tie between them. In this way “Basket Case” can be interpreted as a story about changes how puberty and growing up can change friendships and how those most emotionally stunted will be most hurt. If this seems pretentious, and it probably should, bear in mind something that looks like a giant angry ballsack spends the last 10 minutes of the movie pawing women then responding to their horror with violence. Between this and the disgusting father, it’s not that big of a stretch to conclude “Basket Case” is about how bad parenting and sexual frustration can lead to emotionally stunted thugs. Sure, it’s not the deepest statement in the history of cinema but it’s infintely more complex than “Suburbia Is Mad Weird, Yo” or “Holocaust: Bummer” and those movies win Oscars.
So there you have it, there first Henenlotter movie: a fake-blood squirting Greek tragedy of minuscule proportions. It only gets queerer from here.
Sean Mc Tiernan has a blog and a twitter. So does everyone, though. He also has a podcast on which he has a nervous breakdown once an episode, minimum. You should totally email him with your questions / insults/ offers of tax-free monetary gifts.